The Secret Life of Things – More Poems and Poets on Paying Attention

Poet David Whyte

Poet David Whyte


Everything is Waiting for You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

David Whyte (1955 – ) from Everything Is Waiting For You, Many Rivers Press , 2003

My most recent blog has created a lovely back and forth discussion with a few readers on other poems that address the mystery of everyday things we so often take for granted. In particular, my long-time friend and blogger Rory mentioned David Whyte’s poem Everything Is Waiting For You which introduces this blog post. And acclaimed poet and friend, Heidi sent me the poem The Writing Life by Charles Wright (1935 -), current U.S. Poet Laureate.

It was wonderful to hear from Rory about this poem which we both heard together for the first time about ten years ago in Vancouver at a reading with David Whyte. Since then Rory has attended David Whyte events countless times and as it just so happens (synchronicity!) Rory will be with Whyte today in an all day event in Vancouver. I am envious.

I still remember the look on Rory’s face as he turned to me after hearing Everything is Waiting For You for the first time. It did what good poems are supposed to: it surprised him (and me) and jolted us out of a so-called normal complacency in how we view the extraordinary world around us. A world we diminish when we allow it to become ordinary!

Nothing is ordinary is Whyte’s poem. Great opening: Your great mistake is to act the drama/ as if you were alone. And then as if out of Disney’s film Beauty and the Beast with all its animated objects, the ordinary objects in Whyte’s poem take on a life of their own! Talk about a wonderfully deranged or should I say re-arranged world!! A phone speaker becomes a dream ladder to divinity, the kettle pours a drink and cooking pots shed their aloofness! Whyte opens his eyes in a new way in this poem and makes us see with new eyes as well!

This idea of seeing with new eyes made me remember an introduction to a poetry retreat I wrote four years ago. Here is an excerpt:

“Marcel Proust, the 19th century writer claims: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. The philosopher poet John O’Donohue, who died so suddenly and too soon in 2008 at fifty two, wrote a book of blessings that came out after he died.  One of those blessings, For the Senses, is a call to:

The infinity that hides
In the simple sights
That seem worn
To your usual eyes.

What a different world we see when we see it through our unusual eyes. Those are the eyes of a poet. Eugene Peterson, author and translator of the Bible into contemporary language says: Poetry is language used with particular intensity. It is not, as many suppose decorative speech. Poets tell us what our eyes turned with too much gawking, and our ears dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depths of reality itself.

One way of answering ‘Why do we write?’ is to respond as former US poet laureate, Mark Strand responds, Life makes writing poetry necessary to prove I really was paying attention. [Strand, born in Canada, died this week].

Poets throughout the ages have talked about this quality of paying attention as a way to find those unusual eyes. Here’s why:

Each poet
, says Jane Hirschfield in her book Nine Gates – Entering the Mind of Poetryin his own language, states that the basic matter of poetry comes not from the self, but from the world. From Things, which will speak to us on their terms and with their own wisdom, but only when approached with our full and unselfish attention.”

How do we manage to be in a state of full and unselfish attention in a world that is distracting us every minute it seems; in a world where, as if caught in some raging river, we cannot slow down and witness the miracle of a dandelion in seed, or the cracked and rough bark of an old tree? Here is a way as suggested by Naomi Shahib Nye, a Palestinian-American poet, in these three chewy-good lines from her poem The Art of Disappearing:

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

Wow, what would it be like to be that intensely alive? To live as if this day could be your last? To live this way would be to be a poet, perhaps. Or at least to be a person who sees everything as if for the first and last time.”

Charles Wright is such a person, such a poet. He has been making the ordinary extraordinary during an extraordinarily productive writing career spanning more than fifty years. He also may have won more major literary awards than other English-speaking poet alive today!

My poet-friend Heidi is a long-time admirer of Wright as I am. So it was a delightful surprise to have Heidi send me a poem of his yesterday that so tied in with my December
4th blog post on paying attention! I wasn’t familiar with the poem. Here it is:

The Writing Life

Give me the names for things, just give me their real names,
not what we call them, but what
they call themselves when no one’s listening–
At midnight the moon-plated hemlocks like unstruck bells,
God wandering aimlessly everywhere.
                                                   Their names, their secret names.

December. Everything’s black and brown. Or half-black and half-
What’s still alive puts its arms around me,
                                                  amen from the evergreens
that want my heart on their ribbed sleeves.
Why can’t I listen to them?
                                            Why can’t I offer my heart up
to what’s in plain sight and short of breath?

Restitution of the divine in a secular circumstance–
page 10, The Appalachian Book of the Dead,
                                                          the dog-eared one,
pre-solstice winter light lazer-beaked, sun over Capricorn,
dead-leaf-and-ice-mix grunged on the sidewalk and driveway.
Silent days. Short days. Dark soon light overtakes.
                                                          Stump of a hand.

Charles Wright from Appalachia, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998

Talk about challenging our so-called normal! A world where the things of this world name themselves when we’re not listening. A world:

At midnight with moon-plated hemlocks like unstruck bells,
God wandering aimlessly everywhere.
                                                Their names, their secret names. 

If we could see, if we could listen, like Wright does! Like the great poets do. If we could pay this kind of attention. If we could see with these unusual eyes! If we could hear the secret names of things!

In recent weeks writing has been an agony for me. Normal for a writer! But it’s not about the writing. It’s about my living, my way of seeing, of listening; or not seeing, not listening.

These lines of Wright’s wound me, leave scars!!! They should.

Why can’t I listen to them?
                                            Why can’t I offer my heart up
to what’s in plain sight and short of breath?

Ouch! So easy to keep a clenched heart to shut out pain and suffering. Trouble is, such a clenched heart, also keeps out joy and poetry! But I get it. I don’t offer up my heart to what is in plain sight and short of breath because I, too, am short of breath; am a blink, will die as all these things I live among are short of breath and will die. And maybe, just maybe, that is why I don’t write.

Jane Hirschfield has been an important part of this discussion about the names of things.  Here is something she wrote that was included in The Writer’s Almanac earlier this year:

I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.

So my question needs to asked differently. It is not a question of why don’t I write but how am I not living thoroughly? In what ways am I refusing to listen, to see?

Another luminous poet, Galway Kinnell who died a few weeks ago adds to this discussion from an essay he wrote more than fifty years ago.

Poetry is difficult, I grant, but as I have tried to say, the chief difficulty is neither verbal nor intellectual but moral. We fail to read poetry because we not able to meet the demands it puts on our humanity. As a nation we have surrendered to our own affluence. Though we work ourselves to death inventing, and then serving, the devices that are supposed to work in our stead, we shrink from exploration of the wonder and terror of being a man – that search of which Thoreau said, “Be it life or death we seek only reality.”

Galway Kinnell from Thoughts Occasional by the Most Insignificant of All Human Events, William B. Ewert, Publisher, 1982

What a searing condemnation:…we shrink from exploration of the wonder and terror of being a man [or woman]. And another challenging thought: how we lose ourselves as we serve the devices meant to serve us. How many of us lose our world as we hunch over our smart phones?

I ask myself on this Saturday: what am I shrinking from? I ask you: what are you shrinking from? Perhaps nothing. But then again…

What? Could that be laughter I hear coming from the porcelain tea cup sitting on my desk? Could it be laughter at such an inadequate name – tea cup ? If I listen, really listen will it tell me its name, its secret name? I will write a poem to find out!



  1. Nancy
    Posted December 6, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    I think of Mary Oliver and an excerpt from her poem: ‘When Death Comes’

    When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement.
    I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

  2. Richard
    Posted December 7, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Dear Nancy Thank you for remembering that poem! When members of the so-called poetic establishment diss Oliver or mock her I think of this poem. One American writer claims that often the inspirational poems that inspire readers are mediocre! This poem inspires me at every reading. Maybe this means we need more mediocre poems! So glad you are part of this conversation in the blogosphere!

  3. Mary
    Posted December 7, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    This is a brilliat poem and one that is so timely and congruent for me to sink into on this day…….on this oh so beautiful day.
    Thank-you Richard

  4. Richard
    Posted December 7, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mary Was thinking of you and Andy today! So glad you loved the Whyte poem! Much love, Richard

  5. Nancy
    Posted December 7, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to be here, too, Richard. Your blog-offerings are rich and nourishing. I really appreciate this corner of the web.

  6. Richard
    Posted December 27, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Sorry it took me so long to respond! So glad to know you are one of the readers out there who I write for when I write my blog posts!

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